Sports

Barnette pitches for Yakult Toyko Swallows | Japan earthquake delays TJ grad's baseball comeback

Thomas Jefferson High School graduate Tony Barnette is currently playing his second season with the Yakult Tokyo Swallows in Japan’s Central League. Barnette, a right-handed pitcher, finished last season with a 4-5 record and a 5.99 earned-run average with the Swallows. - Courtesy photo
Thomas Jefferson High School graduate Tony Barnette is currently playing his second season with the Yakult Tokyo Swallows in Japan’s Central League. Barnette, a right-handed pitcher, finished last season with a 4-5 record and a 5.99 earned-run average with the Swallows.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Tony Barnette has immersed himself in the Japanese culture for the last two years. The Thomas Jefferson graduate kind of had his hand forced in that aspect.

For the second year in a row, Barnette is spending his spring and summer in Japan pursuing his lifelong dream of playing professional baseball. The right-handed pitcher recently started his second season with the Yakult Toyko Swallows in Japan’s Central League.

Barnette left for the Far East, along with his fiancé, in February after inking with the Swallows, eager to improve on a mediocre rookie season in the Japanese League. The 27-year-old finished 4-5 with a 5.99 earned-run average.

But his rebound baseball season was put on the back burner last month when a devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami hit the country, killing thousands. Barnette and the Swallows were in Yokohama playing a spring training game when the earthquake struck.

According to his weekly blog, “The Gaijin Pitcher,” which can be viewed at davissportsdeli.com, Barnette describes his experience with the 8.9 quake.

“It was a normal day,” Barnette wrote. “I woke up, ate breakfast, got ready for the day, then grabbed my bag and headed for the train station. We were playing the Yokohama BayStars. After stretching, I played catch, then headed to the bullpen and finally was off to get a run and a lift in. Everything was pointing toward a great day.”

But things didn’t quite turn out that way. In the middle of the sixth inning of the preseason game, Barnette wasn’t needed and was taking a shower when the earth began to shake.

“Side to side. Up and down,” he said. “I can honestly say my eyes were fixed on the ceiling as I hurried into some clothes that weren’t mine and ran to the middle of the field.”

Barnette was concerned enough that he put his fiancé, Hillary Jones, on a flight back to the United States.

“I told her that if she didn’t have to be here, might as well get out while you can,” Barnette said of the decision to send Jones home. “We had a couple of big ones when I was in school. But nothing like this.”

But, like with any huge disaster, the human spirit always seems to prevail. That has been the case in Japan after the earthquake/tsunami, according to Barnette, who has had a front-and-center seat.

“I have been humbled, impressed and awe-stricken by Japan’s amazing sense of togetherness,” he wrote. “This disaster, for a short period, crippled an entire nation, and only in time will it fully rebound. But the determination that the Japanese have shown toward helping one another and reaching out to their fellow countrymen and women, has given me a newfound hope in humanity.”

It didn’t look like Barnette would even make the return trip to Japan for the 2011 baseball season. He struggled in his first season with the Swallows during 2010, finishing with the 4-5 record. Barnette also ended the year on the disabled list and was sent back to America before the Swallows concluded their year.

The club originally cut ties with Barnette and stated they would not be offering him an extension for the 2011 season. But that changed on Jan. 12, 2011, when the Swallows re-signed Barnette to a one-year deal worth 25 million yen (approximately $300,000), plus incentives. The club also holds an option for a second year.

Barnette has currently pitched in three regular season games and has yet to allow a run. He has thrown three innings, has three strikeouts and has given up only one hit as a reliever. The Swallows are in first place in the Central League with a 6-3-2 record.

Barnette earned the big payday in Japan after a stellar minor-league career within the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization.

After graduating from Thomas Jefferson in 2002, Barnette moved on to pitch at Central Arizona Community College before a two-year stint at Arizona State, where he threw at the 2005 College World Series.

Following his collegiate career, Barnette was a 10th-round selection by the Diamondbacks in the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft and steadily rose through the organization’s farm system. He started out in rookie ball in 2006, pitched in the Single-A Midwest League in 2007, the Double-A Southern League in ‘08 and spent the entire 2009 season playing for the Reno Aces of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

In Reno, Barnette finished with a team-best 14 wins with a 5.79 earned-run average in 29 starts for the Diamondbacks’ top-level minor league franchise.

“It is a tad bittersweet,” Barnette said about not playing baseball in the United States. “As I would still like the opportunity to be a Major Leaguer. But, there’s no crying in baseball. I’m still alive and kicking, just chucking the pearl on the other side of the Pacific.”

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